2019-02-20

You’ve heard the old adage about human beings being creatures of habit, but are those habits making us unhappy?

You get up in the morning. You don your outfit. You make your cup of coffee. You meditate. You walk the dog. You go to work. Once you’re at work, you have your entire day planned out—not one surprise will make it past the iron bars of your Outlook calendar. You get home, have dinner, perform two forms of aerobic activity, socialize, read and go to bed.

Your extraordinarily busy life is made so much better and easier by adhering to a strict schedule, and by planning out your day to the very minute, you’re so much more at peace.

Or are you? Is it truly peace you feel, or is that stagnation? Numbness? Maybe even depression? If your schedule unswervingly looks like the example above, you might just be structuring yourself out of happiness.

Fortunately, you can do something about it by recognizing the problem and working to counteract the very contemporary habit of over-planning.

Let’s take a look at how you can do this.

Why We Structure

It is through structure that we feel most in control. When we plan, we decide when things happen, and how, giving ourselves a reasonable expectation that the worst won’t occur.

Structure is also easy—once we follow a pattern for long enough, that pattern becomes habit, and habits are easy to follow. The same neurons fire along the same pathways at the same times every day—there’s very little internal resistance, and little need for thought. It’s autopilot all the way.

This can definitely be a good thing! The hard-fought development of positive habits like exercising, eating well, and socializing can do us worlds of good.

Throughout our lives, we’re conditioned to follow plan after plan, and agenda after agenda, going from the structured days of preschool all the way to the rigid planning of the workday.

Structure is necessary. It’s helpful. But as we’re about to find out, in excess, it can actually be harmful to our well-being.

What’s the Problem?

When we live our lives on rails, we miss out on some beautiful drives in the countryside.

Take the example of your morning routine. Annie Murphy Paul, author of Brilliant: The New Science of Smart, writes that “the way most of us spend our mornings is exactly counter to the conditions that neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists tell us promote flexible, open-minded thinking.” Too much structure, then, inhibits creativity. It inhibits our ability to think in new directions and about new subjects. It keeps us in the same-old-same-old. It keeps life mundane.

And stagnation is never good. Is it the opposite of growth. It is the opposite of life.

Too much structure also leads to something else—boredom. Have you ever laid in your bed at the end of the day, eyes not quite yet weighted down by sleep, and felt that something was simply wrong. You have it all. You’ve achieved your dreams. But something just isn’t right.

Your structured life might just be making you bored—a boredom that can lead to depression.

Finally, too much structure makes us inflexible. And remember—the tree that does not bend to the wind, often breaks.

People change. You will change. And you need to be able to change your life to fit your current needs. If you find yourself trapped within a web of schedules and plans, you just can’t do that.

As you can see, too much structure is a straightjacket. It’s time you pull a Houdini.

Breaking the Habit

There are so many ways to break out of your daily routine and bring adventure back into your life. All it takes is a little bravery and a lot of willpower.

First, you need to examine your habits. How scheduled is your life? Is every moment covered? Is there little chance for deviation or novelty throughout your day?

If so, it’s time to break a few habits.

Start small. Change your breakfast routine. Shower at night instead of the morning. Make a big breakfast of fluffy pancakes. Cuddle with the dog after you walk her. Do a little freewriting instead of meditating.

Next, add in a new destination between work and home—something like a coffee shop or a library. This extra social space can do wonders for exposing you to new people and ideas.

Start looking at the bigger picture of your life by bringing up some of those old goals from the depths of your mind. Is there something you originally wanted to do with your life, but didn’t? Are things not quite the way they should be? Start visualize yourself successfully achieving those goals, and you’ll soon find yourself breaking out of your unsatisfying life and into a new adventure.

Remember—only you control your own life, not your calendar.

Above all, just give yourself time. Set aside time each day to simply think, to allow your thoughts to wander. Dismiss task-oriented desires and embrace the randomness of your messy human mind.

Happiness Through Novelty

Our brains are wired to appreciate novelty—literally. Historically, our minds go into a state of heightened function around the new because we had to assess it as either a threat or a benefit. And so exposure to the new makes us feel good, helps us learn and form memories, and enhances overall productivity by enhancing brain plasticity.

Isn’t most of that what you were trying to do through structure in the first place?

If you’re like most people, you know that we all need structure in order to function, but you might not be aware of how confining it can truly be. So take stock of your routines, of your habits and daily activities, and make sure you’re not placing yourself in a prison built of pocket planners.

Instead of structuring yourself out of happiness, bravely embrace a new way of life—one that’s free and full of adventure.

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